The Purpose of Subplots

Many novice screenwriters come up with a great idea for a story — and then start writing. Inevitably, they run out of ideas and get stuck around page 50 or so. Then what? The answer is to use subplots.

Take any good idea, and you’ll find that no story can last an entire 120-minute length of a typical movie. The problem is that a single story idea can’t sustain the audience’s attention for two hours.

Look at “Star Wars” where the basic idea is whether Darth Vader will wipe out the rebel alliance or not. Well, he either does or he doesn’t. That’s a short story, not a full-length movie. What makes “Star Wars” or any movie compelling isn’t its focus on a single story but on multiple stories that weave together to support the main story. In other words, subplots.

A subplot is essentially a mini-story. If the main story idea in “Star Wars” is whether Darth Vader will wipe out the rebel alliance, you could literally create a million potential other subplots. Will Luke’s uncle raise enough crops for this year’s harvest? Will Luke’s aunt win the orchid contest at the county fair? Will Princess Leia find the Teddy Bear she lost as a child?

As you can see, subplots are infinite and possibly ridiculous. What makes some of these subplot ideas ridiculous is that they have no bearing on the main story idea, which is about Darth Vader wiping out the rebel alliance. So the first key of any subplot is that it must be relevant to the main story idea.

A second key of subplots is that they involve supporting characters. The main story in “Star Wars” is the battle between Luke and Darth Vader. Darth Vader wants to kill the rebel alliance and Luke wants to save it. Subplots can’t be completely separate from either the hero or the villain.

Would a subplot about John Doe on planet Zargon be relevant to the main story of “Star Wars”? No, because planet Zargon and John Doe never interact with either the hero or the villain. Not only must a subplot be related to your main story, but it must somehow involve your hero or villain.

To make a subplot related to your hero or villain, you need additional characters. In “Star Wars,” those additional characters are Hans Solo, Princess Leia, Obi-wan who interact with Luke. Darth Vader also has supporting characters such as the general who runs the Death Star. In general, the villain’s supporting characters are less fully developed than the hero’s supporting characters.

So a subplot needs to be relevant to the main story idea and needs to interact with either the hero or the villain. There’s one more criteria and that is that the supporting characters involved in these subplots must be pursuing similar goals as the hero and that to make these supporting characters more lifelike, they also need to change like the hero.

In “Star Wars,” Princess Leia doesn’t change and remains basically the same character. However, Hans Solo does change, going from a selfish guy to one willing to risk and save Luke. Obi-wan changes by dying. Supporting characters change because of their interaction with the hero.

So the three main ideas of a subplot are:

  1. Must be relevant to the main story idea.
  2. Must involve the hero or villain.
  3. Must involve supporting characters who change somehow.

Finally, subplots involve supporting characters who have goals similar to the hero’s goal. In “Star Wars,” Luke wants an adventure. Hans Solo initially just wants money, but changes his mind and decides to help the rebel alliance, thus getting wrapped up in the same adventure as Luke. Both Luke and Hans were initially stuck in dead end lives, but by changing, they both achieved their goals. Hans got his money and respect while Luke just wanted an adventure and to be somebody (respect).

By using subplots, you aren’t just trying to tell one story and stretch it out, but you’re telling multiple, overlapping and mutually supportive stories that support your main story idea. Now when you run out of ideas with one story, you can switch to another story and by constantly switching from one subplot to another, you wind up telling your main story that you wanted to tell all along.

Try telling a single story for two hours and it’s impossible. Try telling a handful of mini-stories and it’s much easier, and that’s the purpose of developing subplots.

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